PetaPixel

Gear Doesn’t Matter — Except When It Does

If you follow any part of the photographic blogosphere, you’ve heard folks repeat this mantra over and over and over again: “Gear doesn’t matter.”

The basic premise of that dictum is as follows: making great pictures is about the photographer, not the camera or the lens or any other piece of gear. A good photographer can make a great image with a point-and-shoot that an amateur armed with a Nikon D4 and an 85mm f/1.4 lens can’t match.

I’ve personally repeated the “It’s not the camera that takes the picture” mantra to new photographers myself because I know it to be true, and because it helps allay the fears many photographers have when buying their first DSLR, for example.

I’ve also made some images, like the one shown above of Highway 130 in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I still like. It was taken with a Canon Rebel XTi and an 18–55mm kit lens.

So, yes, at a basic level, you can make great images with very basic gear. For newcomers, especially, this is a good sermon to preach.

The catch

You knew there was going to be one, right?

Before I tell you what that catch is, let me say this again, this time in bold and italic typeface: You don’t need expensive gear to get started in photography. Even a point-and-shoot will work. Use basic gear to learn the basics of photography before you start eyeing big gear.

Ok. Here’s that catch: Gear doesn’t matter – except when it does.

Scott Kelby said it best on episode 46 of his show, The Grid:

This is one that that, boy, you’re gonna hear people get cranked about this, but by gosh, we talk about it privately, and we hear other people talk about it in small groups, but somebody’s gotta talk about it. I know that you’ve heard again and again and again on the web – someone’s gonna type this as soon as I say it – “It’s not about the camera. It’s not about the equipment.”

You know what it is? Here’s the truth. Sometimes, it is about the equipment. Sometimes it is, and nobody wants to say that, because everyone wants to be camera-politically correct… The reality of it is, sometimes it is. If you want a certain look, sometimes you have to buy stuff.

Watch that episode and you’ll see why he says that. For the record, I agree with him.

There are two key reasons why – and when – I think gear matters.

1. When you begin to specialize

When you’re first starting out with photography, you’re exploring the basics. You’re learning about composition and exposure, getting to know your camera and how it performs under various situations.

At this point, when you’re first starting out, it’s not about the gear. Sure, you’ll want some basics, like a modern DSLR or digital rangefinder, but really, even a digital point-and-shoot will help you learn those basics.

But at some point, you’re going to get beyond the basics. And you’re going to start drifting towards a specific genre of photography. That’s when gear is going to matter.

Hummingbird image taken with a 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4 lens

Let’s be clear here. You’re not very likely to photograph a hummingbird in the shade without a long lens and a camera that’ll perform well at ISO 1600. You’re not likely to grab a shot of the wide receiver at a football game make the game-winning catch and isolate him from the crowded background, in stadium lighting, without a long lens and a wide-open (think 400mm at f/2.8) aperture.

When you drift towards specific genres, your gear will directly affect your ability to make the images you want to. Long, fast lenses and high-ISO cameras may be necessary for some types of photography, while more megapixels and strobes with short durations may be more appropriate for freezing subjects in mid-motion.

That’s when gear will matter.

2. When you’ve hit a certain level of expertise

There are a lot of jokes that are circulating around on the subject of gear.

One that I’ve heard time and time again goes along these lines: Some hapless dolt gapes at your awesome hummingbird shot and says, “Boy, that’s a great picture! You must have a great camera!”

You get snarky and respond, “Yup. Got it from the same place Michelangelo bought his brushes.”

I guess that’s appropriate to some extent. As I said above, we have to stress the importance of the creator of an image.

But you know what? I betcha Michelangelo did have great brushes. And paints. And whatever else painters use (rulers? palettes?).

There is a reason why painters sometimes obsess over the quality of their brushes, or why great chefs use thousand-dollar knives, pots, and pans. At some point, artists realize that getting great gear makes a difference to their art – not because they couldn’t create something without those top-notch tools, but because top-notch tools make it easier for them to execute their vision.

100% crop of the hummingbird image (scaled down to fit) taken with a 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4 lens.

Here’s an example: I photograph birds from time to time. It’s something I’m not great at, but I love doing it. What I really wanted was to capture a hummingbird in flight. I wanted to freeze its wings, to grab a shot of it in mid-motion. I wanted a shot so detailed that you could see tiny feathers on the bird.

In the beginning, I tried using my Rebel XTi and my friend’s 100–400 lens. The hummingbirds, however, kept coming to flowers that were almost perpetually in shade, and my XTi’s high-ISO performance was not doing the trick. I needed to hit ISO 1000+ and it usually fell apart at ISO 400.

It wasn’t till I rented a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4 lens with a gimbal head that I was finally able to get the image you see here. At a 100% crop, you can even see the bird’s tiny feet.

This is when gear mattered.

Conclusion

I do think that when you’re just starting out, gear doesn’t matter. You need the very basics to learn the basics. In fact, if people would append the phrase “when you’re starting out” to “Gear doesn’t matter,” I’d skip this diatribe.

But I’ve heard too many photographers – including some that I seriously respect and admire – repeat the “Gear doesn’t matter” mantra without qualification. I wish someone had explained this to me in my early days – I spent a LOT of time chasing impossible images with my kit lens and nearly gave up on photography a few times.

I’ll leave you with this quote from photographer David DuChemin, who coined the phrase, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” This is from a comment he left on Zack Arias’ blog entry announcing his medium-format switch:

I hate you. Been trying to dodge this reality for a while, and it’s coming closer and closer. I think I’m done with falling off walls for now, so might as well learn a new system. These posts are tough to do because inevitably someone gets in your grill about “the camera doesn’t matter.” And it really doesn’t. Unless you have specific needs, and then it does [emphasis mine]. And if the client even thinks they have the need for larger files, or you happen to love printing gigantic prints, then output matters and the kind of camera you have determines this output.

’Nuff said.


About the author: Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer who writes for the gear rental service BorrowLenses. This post was original published on the BorrowLenses blog.


 
 
  • http://wet-photo.at Markus WET

    Gear matters when you’ve reached the limits of your current gear. Everything else is for penis compensation ^^

  • http://twitter.com/teacherdude teacherdude

    While I am a ardent believer in the basic premise that gear does not matter there are many fields of photography where this simply isn’t true, most obviously wild life photography. On the other hand, if you wish to take pictures in less technically demanding situations its vision and expertise that matters most, rather than the latest DSLR or costly prime lens. 

    If you don’t know what it is you want to achieve with your images no amount of equipment will fill that void.

  • Ranger 9

    I still think your revised mantra — “gear doesn’t matter, except when it does” — puts the emphasis in the wrong place, i.e., on the gear.

    Absorb now a bit of ballet-dancer wisdom: “Who makes your shoes doesn’t matter, but how they fit matters a lot.”

    In photography, too, what matters with gear is how it fits. If your vision calls for an oatmeal box with a pinhole, you’ll be frustrated working with a Hasselblad, and vice-versa.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amando-Filipe/1575265174 Amando Filipe

    I find it funny when people rocking 5D’s say that gear doesn’t matter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joey-Duncan/1111692326 Joey Duncan

    Spoken like a true…….. Person who isn’t a professional.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joey-Duncan/1111692326 Joey Duncan

    I kinda think that’s the point he was making….

  • http://wet-photo.at Markus WET

    ??? Please explain?

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjaminjmarshall Ben Marshall

    Gear matters for one reason alone… finding out which gear is reliable, which gear you can count on to capture your vision… You are not going to need expensive tools to photograph in every niche… but if you want to look like you are the only one that can do it… as a career… you need the gear…  Hmmm thats 2 reasons.

  • russianbox

    suck my f/2.8

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joey-Duncan/1111692326 Joey Duncan

    Well, anybody comparing hardware to “penis compensation” kinda shows how little respect you have for other people. Either you put people down or hate it would seem. Rather unprofessional to me. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.newhall Chris Newhall

    My penis is by no means small but I still feel a desire to buy the newest, most advanced cameras (I want a D800 SOO bad even though my D7000 is perfectly fine for what I do) and drive the fastest, flashiest cars (not going to happen any time soon). Does that mean I’m broken?

  • Jason Spracklin

    This discussion is not really framed the right way.

    Of course gear matters when you are trying to get a shot that your camera won’t allow.

    A more valid statement would be that gear alone won’t make you a great photographer.

    Too many photographers think that buying more expensive or advanced gear will automatically improve their photography.

    It’s like saying that buying a $3000 Les Paul will help you play better, even if you don’t know much about playing guitar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joey-Duncan/1111692326 Joey Duncan

    Photography is a passion, and gear is a hobby for me. I love both. Some of the stuff I have, I don’t really need, but then again I sometimes pride myself on rigging things up to make it work rather than just buying it. Forget that, some equipment is just too much money just so it looks fancy and doesn’t fall apart…. Meh, that’s what Duct Tape is for!

    But I believe people need to learn before they start buying things. Hate having to tell a friend, “you used your camera well, but your comp sucks”

  • Damian

     False

  • http://twitter.com/timobryan Tim O’Bryan

    This is rather true of any experienced photographer wielding a 5D or 1D or D4, etc.

    Typically because all the comments they get on their gear is about how “good” it is. Any other professional would never make such a comment because they’re not worried about it.

    For my job I can grab a 5D MkIII and virtually any L lens I fancy… when I’m not at work what do I grab? A T2i and a $100 50mm 1.8.  

  • Rycrob

    Yeah, that was… exactly what he just said in the article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michal-Rosa/1061853192 Michal Rosa

    “A good photographer can make a great image with a point-and-shoot that an amateur armed with a Nikon D4 and an 85mm f/1.4 lens can’t match.”
    Right, a pro can for example blur the background with a point-and-shoot.  A pro can use a point-and-shoot in darkness and get a sharp imagine like from a DSLR.  Of course, it’s so obvious.

    Gear always matters, it’s not the most important factor in taking a picture but gear always matters.

  • Benji

    suck my f/1.2

  • ThermiteCrab

    Spoken like a person with a tiny penis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/xsportseeker Renato Murakami

    Gear matters when you know why and what you’re doing with it.

    The “gear doesn’t matter” applies to new photographers that worries too much about having the best equipment out there while not knowing how to work and on what to work with them…For that matter, it applies not only to photography. Like say, what’s the use in buying a $3000 PC or $7000 laptop if you’re only using it to surf the web and write some text in office?

    Then again, we have several things behind those sayings… like gear isn’t everything. Good photographers are capable of adapting techniques and ideas to the gear they have available, for instance. So you can have a good result even while working around several limitations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/xsportseeker Renato Murakami

    I dunno, for what you’ve said, it seems to me more of a brand discussion than the type of equipment you use. For photography, a better analogy to it would be “it doesn’t matter what brand the photographer uses – be it Nikon, Canon, Sony or whatever – as long as the photographer knows how to use it”.

  • http://wet-photo.at Markus WET

    Yes, a bit ^^ although wanting a D800 instead of a D7000 is a bit different (full frame vs crop). But let’s say you’re having a D700 instead of a D7000: Why would you want to upgrade and lose a whole bunch of money if the D700 is “perfectly fine for what you do”? Why do you have that huge urge to get a new piece of equipment while you haven’t even reached  the limits of your current one? What will the D800 do for you that the D700(0) can’t do?

    I’ve had 2 cameras in my entire life: an Alpha 200 and then a D7000. I upgraded to the D7000 after I realized that the Alpha 200 is less than usable for available light concert photography. ISO 800 was the highest setting I dared to use and even that looked somewhat horrible. That and the better ergonomics of the D7000 were the only reasons for me to change systems. I’m not trying to sound like a saint. When I first heard of Hasselblad’s H4D I started drooling and thought: I’ve got to have that at some point in my life. It took me a few months to realise that the H4D would be a horrible step in the wrong direction for me: Slow, heavy, horrible high-ISO, slow lenses. Why on earth would I want to take that thing into the photo pit at a concert?? ^^ You get what I’m trying to say?

    In the end:
    Sure, feel free to buy the D800! It’s one hell of a camera with amazing features and capabilities. I won’t say that you absolutely must not buy that camera. It’s a free world after all :D … but still, TO ME that move doesn’t make sense :) Just my 2 cents …

  • russianbox

     oh my gosh O:

  • kendon

    this post perfectly explains why at some times gear in fact does matter. yet it still kicks off the ancient discussion if it does or not.

    oh internet, will ye ever learn?

  • http://wet-photo.at Markus WET

    (somehow I can’t reply to your second comment)

    I don’t put people down nor do I have little respect for them. That depends on the individual and not the general.

    Like I’ve said in my reply to Chris: Why would you want to upgrade and lose a whole bunch of money if the [gear you own right now] is perfectly fine for what you do? It doesn’t make sense to me (anymore) and I feel that at some point in our lives as photographers, we should overcome that urge.

    Oh and by the way, I noticed a mistake in my initial post: I ment penis comparison! … more or less the same thing but I guess compensation really sounds a bit more offensive. Sorry, mixing up vocabulary happens from time to time when you’re not a native speaker ^^

  • http://www.stephenjwilliams.com Stephen J Williams

    Embarrassingly, I find myself agreeing with everyone. But can I add… Diane Arbus used to say she liked taking pictures with huge, clunky, difficult cameras (I think it was because there was something about it that slowed her down and made her think differently). I like using different cameras, whether it’s a $3.50 toy camera from the kids toys section of the supermarket or a Konica Hexar (mine recently stolen, unfortunately). One of the challenges of a new piece of ‘gear’, is just that you find yourself thinking about what you can and can’t do with what you’ve got just at the moment. The next party I go to, all I will have is my toy camera (which I was surprised to find has a hot-shoe) and a $500 flash unit. It will have to do. 

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Amen Sohail – great article!

  • Dave

     You don’t know what your talking about. Professionals use their camera equipment for what it is…..a set of tools to accomplish their brand of photography. Certain gear is needed for certain effects. Sometimes that gear is costly and exotic and above what the casual photographer (you) may really need or know how to use. That is where ridiculous generalizations come from. You can’t figure out how to use specialized gear so you insult those that do. Nice try, but you missed.

  • Dave

     This is so true. I know a lot of rich people that have all the gear but can’t seem to get a decent shot.

  • http://2020digging.tumblr.com/ Bo Reidler

    Woody Allen once said that his childhood ambition was to play the violin. That held true until he realised that he would have to practice diligently to master the instrument. Same with gear. Having all the right gear for the occasion doesn’t help if you don’t know how to get the most out of it. Obviously, it would be fun learning though, if you’re only a hobbyist. One would think that a professional photographer would not have as much trouble getting up to speed with a variety of gear given their foundational knowledge and experience in the art of photography. The article is spot on within the context of the theme. And then there is the point that if you want to buy new gear and can afford to who cares what others say. Life is for living.

  • ennuipoet

    Of course gear matters! What gear won’t do is replace talent. All the top end gear in the world make nary a damn of difference if the photographer has no vision, no eye, no fire. I have the best gear I can afford to do what I need to do with it, would I like a five different top end bodies and a bag full of L Glass? Yer damn skippy! Can I use the gear I have to the utmost of it’s ability? Yer damn skippy again! The cameras and lenses are tools, good tools make the work easier, but they don’t make the work.

  • http://wet-photo.blogspot.com/ Markus WET

    You completely failed to understand what I’m saying …
    And what are you even talking about? At what point did I say anything against professionals? How did I insult ANYBODY who’s using specialized gear? Oh and could you please tell me exactly what specialized gear I don’t understand? You seem to know me pretty well when you can make assumptions like that -_-

    Honestly, I somehow feel like you’re currently trying to provoke an argument about completely unrelated stuff

    Maybe my initial comment wasn’t clear enough, if so please read my reply to Chris’ post. I hope that I was able to explain what I meant with that reply.

  • Sohail Mamdani

    Thanks, Bob!

  • Sohail Mamdani

    To be fair, the very first image in the article was taken with a Rebel XTi and a kit 18-55mm lens :-) I didn’t always rock the 5D. 

  • :P

    I guess you could relate the Photographer with the Automobile Driver.
    There are consumer cars and professional cars.
    One driver and teams of people working together with one driver.
    Ask a formula one driver if gear matters, or someone racing in Baja.

    There is gear for each and every photo that is needed to be taken.
    It is all just a Grayscale from Consumer to the Best photographer in the world.

  • Ranger 9

    The point I was trying to get across was that gear in itself NEVER matters. Not just “except when it does.” Never. Subtle difference.

  • Suman0102

     Joey, just out of curiosity, why does someone need to be professional in a site like this? Plus, I think you missed Markus WET’s sarcasm there.

  • Suman0102

     are we playing that game? lol
    lets go with 1.0
    Somebody else wanna take the .95?

  • Jared Monkman

    children, please, keep quiet.

  • http://www.eriklaurikulo.se/ Erik Lauri Kulo

    As a working photojournalist I’m the first to admit that gear does matter. I have to trust my gear to work in any situation thrown at me. I’ve been down in mines where it’s cold, dusty and dirty… and dark, so I need gear that can handle that situation. And when shooting outside it can suddenly start to rain, snow, hail and worse – but my gear has to work! I don’t want to tell my boss that “No, I can’t photograph that event, it’s raining outside.”, that’s ridiculous.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andreas.puhl Andreas Puhl

    Little upstream somebody used a Les Paul guitar for an analogy. I’d like to add here, that if you want to learn any instrument, getting yourself a crappy one wont do you any good. A guitar that constantly detunes and has a generally shitty sound will hinder you in making any progress. A novice can not compensate for crappy equiment, so the experience will be tedious and frustrating. So while yes, you do not need a Les Paul when you start out, you shouldnt buy a Les Crap for $2 either.
    I think the same goes for camera equipment, aswell. You don’t need Pro-Gear when you start out, but shabby gear will not allow you to grow and learn either. A great photographer can make a great image with a shabby camera, but becoming a great photographer is considerably harder if all you have is shite.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mugget mugget man

    And you could reach the limits of your current gear very quickly if you decide you want to spend more time on a certain type of photography, or want a particular look. Hence – when the gear matters.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mugget mugget man

    I’ll go with the 6mm f/2.8 Nikon. Unsuckable!  :P

  • http://profiles.google.com/mugget mugget man

    Good analogy. Because even a great driver will run rings around anyone else, even if they’re driving an unmodified car.  ;)

  • 9inchnail

    Better gear always makes a difference. Take a tripod, mount a XTi with kit lens take a picture. Now mount a 5D with an L lens, take the same picture. Do you really think, there won’t be any difference in sharpness, contrast and overall image quality? Sure, composition makes the shot but you can’t get more image quality than your gear allows you to.

    In special circumstances, as described in the article, your gear can actually decide if you can take the shot at all. If you’ve reached your highest ISO setting that still delivers decent pics and still can’t get an usable shutter speed, that’s it. That’s a shot you’re not gonna take and might regret.

  • http://wet-photo.blogspot.com/ Markus WET

     Exactly, when you decide you want to go shooting birds with your 18-55 kit lens then you’ve reached the limits and an upgrade is justified. That’s exactly what I’m talking about! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1041101878 David DePhillips

    Nice conversation about the value of “Gear”.  I ve been shooting professionally and not, for 45yrs, and the gear isnt important till it is phrase I agree.  Much like a tool box in my garage.  A few of those tools are used more often than many others in the box until its time is needed or is appropriate. Focus on the Art and the process and doing so, you can shoot from the hip, if your interest is photo journalism or spot news,  and still come away with a money shot.  I ALWAYs have a point in shoot in my briefcase or car, always loaded and ready. IF your just coming into photography your entering at a great time. Technologically the digital shift has expanded the possibilities of the ART.  Have fun and Think inside that Box.

  • Flgraphics

    you need to know a decent amount about photography before you can pick up a 1D and a 600mm lens and be able to get a decent shot.

  • Davesmith

    Lol.

  • PunchRockgroin

    My favourite lens it the EF 50 1.2. It’s horrid, not particularly sharp but with such a thin DOF it really forces you to slow down, you really have to know it to get a usable photo out of it. And I love it for that.